Richard Ford – Writing Philosophy in the Genre of the Novel

As my partner Bill lay in bed in our home dying of pancreatic cancer, he told me that there was one message that he wanted me to say to his family members and friends during his funeral service: “Tell them to be kind to one another.”

I was reminded of this as I read the final page in Richard Ford’s recent novel “Canada.”

It’s not that Bill’s words and those that Ford has his narrator speak were conveying the same message. Rather, it is that deceptively simple injunctions to others or observations on life or reflections about human nature can carry a wallop far out of proportion to their seeming innocuousness.

Richard Ford has a capacity to communicate profound philosophical insights through casual comments that his characters drop in mostly unselfconscious moments. “Canada” is teeming with them as my highlighting pen gives witness. A few examples drawn randomly:

–       “… it’s the edging closer to the point of no return that’s fascinating…”

–       “It’s been my habit of mind, over the years, to understand that every situation in which human beings are involved can be turned on it’s head…knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means believing that good isn’t possible; and I know for a fact that good is.”

–       “…if anyone’s mission in the world was to gain experience, it might be necessary, as I’d already thought, to become someone different—even if I didn’t know who.”

–       “Which may finally be the only real difference between one place on the earth and another: how you feel about the people, and the difference it makes to you to think that way.”

–       “What I know is, you have a better chance in life—of surviving it—if you tolerate loss well.”

Grouped together like this might give a sense that Ford’s “Canada” is a ponderous read and yet such personally philosophical and, one might say, existential reflections never obstruct the quietly paced narration of the story. I read the novel more slowly than I read most fiction, in part because I was relishing Ford’s writing, and in part because I was trying to ferret out how Ford is able to convey so much of the internal mindscape of his narrator without succumbing to the tedious descriptions of “I’m-feeling-this-now” and “now-I’m-feeling-that” which make much contemporary fiction boring.

I think that I’ve come up with a few clues. Ford is so skilled in character depiction that he is able to create a credible narrator who can share details of his own thoughts and feelings without coming off as either exhibitionistic or self-absorbed. Secondly, the philosophical reflections emerge organically from the story line. And thirdly, the narrator’s observations strike us as simultaneously novel and familiar—we are jarred by the uniqueness of the insight but then immediately recognize how they resonate with our own perceptions of the world around us and within us.

Which is, after all, why so many of us are drawn to reading and writing fiction—to help others and ourselves draw meaning out of the life that we experience and witness. Richard Ford, in my view, is a master at writing philosophy in the genre of the novel.

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For information on Richard Ford’s novel “Canada,” see:

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my website at:

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